PART I: A FAMILY AFFAIR
"Fiddling with Other People's Faces"
My mother wasn't like other mothers.
When I was growing up in the 1930s, I remember sitting in the kitchen, watching my mother cook up facial creams on the stove. We lived in a series of residential hotels on New York's Upper West Side. These were ordinary apartment buildings with one difference: the building provided maid service. My mother liked the convenience of not having to make the beds.
Even then, her focus was on her business.
I'd come home from elementary school to a home-cooked hot lunch. (Lamb chops with mint jelly and mashed potatoes is still my favorite meal.) Then the doorbell would ring with a customer: women who wanted to learn how to use the velvety, sweet-smelling potions that made their face feel as smooth and supple as fine silk. While I kept busy in the living room, my mother gave them facials in the bedroom. I often heard her encouraging them to care for their skin with what became her signature phrase: "Every
And it was true: when the women walked through the living room after their treatments, their skin glowed. And their purses often held a few newly purchased black-and-white containers labeled "Estée Lauder."
I was born in 1933, the same year that my mother founded what would become The Estée Lauder Companies. Today, the company that bears her name comprises over 25 brands sold in some 150 countries and territories. Back then, though, success was measured in individual jars. The company and I grew up together, our lives as closely paired as twins. It has always been more than a family company: it was—and continues to be—my family.
This is our story. It's the story of a family's transformation, of a company's creation, of a changing world, and of my own personal journey as I learned to navigate through life, love, and Estée Lauder.
"I LIKED TO MAKE THEM PRETTY"
Creating beauty was something my mother had been doing ever since she was a young child.
The woman who would become Estée Lauder was born on July 1, 1908, as Josephine Esther Mentzer, the daughter of Rose Schotz Rosenthal and her second husband, Max Mentzer. Rose had emigrated from Hungary and Max from Slovakia; both ended up in Corona, Queens, where Max ran a hardware store and they lived above the shop.
That part of Queens then was a loud and lively place, crowded with a rapidly growing population of Italian, Eastern European, German, and Irish immigrants and noisy with ongoing construction. It was in a constant state of flux, with new industries and roads springing up in the wake of the 1909 completion of the Queensboro Bridge. The Brooklyn Ash Company and other businesses used the marshland adjoining Flushing Bay to dispose of cinders and garbage from nearby boroughs. Heaps of refuse piled up more than sixty feet high and were referred to as "Corona Mountain." The area was later immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby
as "the Valley of Ashes."
But it was also pulsing with vitality and purpose. All of those immigrants had come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their children, and they were pouring their energies into that goal. Their children, born in America, tended to shun their straitlaced European backgrounds and threw themselves into assimilating. My mother later wrote in her autobiography, Estée: A Success Story
, "I wanted desperately to be 100 percent American." That meant learning to speak unaccented English and to spot and seize the opportunities that would enable her to leave Queens and explore a wider world.
Like many little girls, Esty, as her family called her, liked to play with her mother's skin creams and comb her girlfriends' hair. But her interest in beauty makeovers went far beyond most little girls' experiments. Family, friends, and later classmates—anyone who sat down long enough—was subject to one of her "treatments," to the point that Max expostulated, "Esty, stop fiddling with other people's faces." But, as she wrote, "this is what I liked to do—touch other people's faces, no matter who they were, touch them and make them pretty."